It used to be the case that if a Westerner aspired to gain acceptance in the Arab world, he would express views that were deeply critical of US policy. Not anymore. That same Westerner may now have to have an answer not for why the US has intervened, but for why the US has not intervened enough.
This is certainly the case in Syria, where oppositionists prayed (unsuccessfully) for a US strike on Assad. It is also the case in Egypt, where both opponents and supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi blasted Obama for not taking their respective sides. And across the sectarian divide, the US is blamed for supporting one side against another, with Sunnis in Iraq saying the US is propping up an authoritarian Shi’ite regime.
It would appear that one of the main outcomes of the Arab uprisings is that they have internalized politics by opening up new spaces for competition between rival elites. With the prize being nothing less than the capture of the state, it is no longer considered taboo to solicit Western support, even for Islamists. In the new power challenge dialectic, the benefits of foreign patronage far outweigh the costs of ideology.
Ultimately, it must come down to the US president to assess who to support and who not to. Proud of his record of getting his country out of wars and keen not to get sucked into new ones, Obama is understandably wary of indulging the stream of Middle Eastern petitioners at his doorstep, each employing the language of freedom to draw the US back into the region. How else could we explain the confused response to Mursi’s ouster, or the lack of coherent strategy on Syria, or the often counterproductive policy towards Iraq?
Granted, humanitarian principles do not always sit well with realistic assessments of US national security interests, but this is only one part of the story. The other is that the petitioners, Arab elites of one form or another, are almost always driven more by opportunity than principle. The idea that they should ever adhere to the same exacting standards of justice and selfless do-gooding that they expect of Western leaders is so fanciful as to induce whoops of derision. Such elites are unlikely to bring about meaningful and well-ordered change commensurate with the considerable political capital that would need to be invested by the West to support them—post-Saddam Iraq being the case in point.
If the disingenuousness is not bad enough, there is the ingratitude. USAID, the foreign aid arm of the US government, has paid over USD 1 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria, but you wouldn’t know about it if you were following media outlets controlled by the Syrian opposition. The reluctance to admit to Western support, marked against a propensity to play up aid from Arab countries, shows that for all the blood and treasure invested in the Middle East, “thank you” remains the hardest thing to say. Fail and it is America’s fault for not supporting you enough; win and it is the people who have done it.
In many ways, the problem is that the rise of a more pragmatic view of Western power in the Arab world has not been accompanied by a set of ideas that legitimizes anything beyond a short-term exchange of interests. It is US and EU hard power that power-challengers seek to harness and, as such, dealing with the West is often portrayed as nothing more than an unpleasant chore.
Doubts like these over the worthiness of another military intervention in the Middle East must have contributed to Obama’s decision to hold back from bombing Syria. The White House has instead opted to play Putin’s game of decommissioning Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles and working towards a negotiated settlement at Geneva II. The concern in Washington is preserving Obama’s legacy and what remains of his credibility, even if it comes at the cost of keeping Assad’s regime afloat. A cynical ploy by a risk-averse president, some have said—and they are quite possibly right. But in a region where cynicism is a modus operandus, why expect any different?
In Aleppo, the overriding concern is about something altogether more pressing: salvaging a popular revolt that has gone hideously wrong. With a third of Syrians displaced, whole cities in ruins and Al-Qaeda running amok, the situation has turned into a nightmare. “Only God and America can end this,” one distraught cleric told me. He’s not far wrong, but in the name of what and for the sake of whom is far less certain.